TL;DR: What is the thinking behind turning to breathe every stroke (i.e. every two arm pulls) in freestyle?

Isn't this wasteful, since breathing necessarily disrupts your flow?

I'm a keen swimmer, swimming 3-4 miles a week freestyle. I breathe every 3 strokes (six arm pulls) and thought this was a great idea since

  1. it doesn't disrupt my stroke to keep turning to breathe
  2. it presumably means I have decent lung capacity.

But then I see Michael Phelps and all the others breathing each and every stroke, and I can't exactly argue with them. Why?

  • 1
    Because breathing really should not be a disruption to your stroke - this suggests you are turning your head too much. Plus, the gain from getting more oxygen overcomes any slowdown you might perceive. Furthermore, having one fixed stroke cycle gives you one fewer thing to concentrate mentally on - you aren't counting breathed while racing.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 14, 2016 at 1:53
  • The suspicion that I turn my head too much is understandable, but I don't. Surely on a purely physical basis, any 90-degree movement of the head is necessarily disruptive to a smoothe stroke. Compared to keeping your head still, that seems obvious to me, but perhaps I'm mistaken.
    – Mitya
    Aug 14, 2016 at 11:20
  • On freestyle there is enough shoulder rotation that just letting your head rotate with your shoulders allows one to breathe. There is no 90 degree rotation going on.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 14, 2016 at 16:54
  • Interesting. From watching the pros it seemed around 90 degrees (it couldn't logically be much less, since your face is perpendicular with the water) but perhaps I'm turning too much, then. Still doesn't explain the need to breathe every stroke, but perhaps that comes down to exertion / race distance.
    – Mitya
    Aug 14, 2016 at 18:22
  • If you are swimming fast enough, you get a bow wave - your mouth does not have to be above pool level, just above the wave trough from your head. That plus shoulder (upper body rotation) and your head really doesn't turn that much, in fact, more effort is put in to keeping your head straight when not breathing / it naturally wants to swing with your shoulders.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 14, 2016 at 21:38

2 Answers 2


"since breathing necessarily disrupts your flow"

I think the amount of disruption relates to how far from perfect your form is. Since they need to breathe, they put a lot of work in perfecting their body and stroke movement so there is almost no additional body movement related to breathing. If the catch and pull are done correctly, the body is swiveling back and forth along the center-line/spine axis with every stroke cycle.

So, if they do it efficiently, there is just a minimal turn of the head and opening of the mouth. At that level, swimming as form-perfectly as they do, lactic acid build up and maximizing oxygen intake is a major consideration that trumps any very minor form imperfections that breathing brings.

They are swimming 7, 8 or more miles every DAY during peak conditioning training, so avoiding that kind of oxygen deprivation is much more important for their training than someone who does half of that in a week.


I suspect they breathe that much because that's just how much they need to... when going all out at that pace. From what you described of your own experience, you seem to be doing more long-distance/endurance swimming, which is pretty different from sprinting.

Speaking for myself, when I do long distance, I definitely breathe less often than when I'm sprinting.

Could it be that simple? :)

  • +1. Yeah I suspected this might be the case, though I also see good swimmers in my pool doing endurance but still breathing each stroke. I guess it makes sense to breathe more if you're going flat-out, but even then I might have thought that, with their level of fitness and lung capacity, they'd do at least a couple of strokes head-down rather than turning to breathe each time.
    – Mitya
    Aug 14, 2016 at 11:22
  • 1
    Actually, it's more important to get more oxygen for long distance races. In a sprint, you exertion is such that you're already pushing the body into anaerobic metabolism/energy use, but since the race is over quickly, building up an inordinate amount of lactic acid is something you can kind of power through, in the short terms. Over a longer course of time, aerobic vs anaerobic makes a difference on your ability to sustain those repetitive movements without your form breaking down The oxygen is more important over distance. Aug 15, 2016 at 17:10

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